Widening participation and social class: implications for HEI policy

P. Greenbank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review


During the past 40 years higher education has moved from an elite to a mass system. Despite this expansion, the working class remain under‐represented in higher education. They are also disproportionately represented in less prestigious institutions and on lower status courses. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that students from lower socio‐economic groups have greater difficulty adapting to university life because of a mis‐ match between their cultural capital and the middle class culture they encounter in higher education. Finally, studies indicate that working class students have less success in the graduate labour market than their middle class peers. The disadvantages working class students face arise because of a complex combination of economic, social and cultural factors. This study utilises documentary evidence and interviews with key policy makers in HEIs to gain a better understanding of how policy migrates from the macro to the institutional level. It was found that institutional policy on widening participation develops out of a complex combination of economic and political influences mediated by the values, beliefs and objectives (i.e. the culture) of HEIs. The fact that institutions face the same economic and political environment leads to some homogeneity in policy. For example, there is similarity in what HEIs actually ‘do’ in terms of aspiration raising and student support. However, institutional differences in organisational culture also lead to heterogeneity, especially in relation to the rationale underpinning aspiration raising and in respect of admissions policies.Greenbank – Widening participation and social class 78 This paper identifies a number of issues that are felt to require further consideration by HEI policy makers. First, there appears to be a need to critically examine the values underpinning aspiration raising and admissions policies. Second, there is a reluctance to ‘label’ students or even refer to social class. This seems to act as a significant barrier to the development of effective policy. Third, there is a need for HEIs (and government) to clearly conceptualise and define what they mean by a ‘widening participation student’. Finally, HEIs often seem complacent and have a tendency to externalise the ‘problem’ of widening participation. The paper concludes by addressing the implications of these issues for admissions, student support and pedagogy. Participants will be encouraged to comment on the research and the implica‐ tions for Edge Hill.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-108
JournalNEXUS Journal of Learning & Teaching Research
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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